While many people would consider a black circle on a white background and a tent appliqued with names of a woman’s sleeping partners to be crimes against art, you didn’t see Kazimir Malevich or Tracey Emin arrested for their creations. Had they been Chinese citizens like Ai Weiwei – the artist at the centre of the Hampstead theatre’s current production – perhaps they might not have been so fortunate.
Marking Howard Brenton’s return to the Hampstead theatre following his 2012 hit 55 Days, the playwright’s new play #aiww: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei tells the true story of the contemporary Chinese artist who was arrested at Beijing airport in 2011 and branded a conman, a liar and a bigamist by the country’s authorities. Guilty only of creating pieces of art from a smashed up pile of furniture and clay sunflower seeds then selling them for extortionate prices, Weiwei is incarcerated for a reason entirely unbeknown to him… and us.
Each room in which the artist finds himself imprisoned is enclosed within a rectangular crate, confining the action to a small central section of the stage, like a work of art displayed against a vast white backdrop, with a large handful of individuals – a combination of actors and the stage management team – admiring the piece from the sides like members of the public at an art gallery.
Days, weeks and months pass and Weiwei remains in his wooden cage, handcuffed to a chair and responding to orders given by aggressive soldiers. Murder detectives come and go in an attempt to force a confession, but in reality the artist’s only crimes are making a killing from his abstract works of art and assassinating the Chinese government on social media.
Benjamin Wong – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the artist – gives an admirable performance as Weiwei, interweaving passionate orations about the value of art and freedom of speech with a boiling frustration that wears away his patience and sanity.
James Macdonald’s production receives flickers of comedy – and later compassion – from Andrew Koji and Christopher Goh as Weiwei’s disinterested guards, who spend more time on their phones than they do intimidating the artist, but are ultimately conveyed as captives themselves. David Lee-Jones and Orion Lee as the inquiring detectives undergo a heartening transformation throughout the play, evolving from hostile interrogators to sympathetic allies as they share Chinese cooking tips and begin to appreciate the message Weiwei is trying to convey through his art.
While Weiwei was unable to see his story told on stage at the Hampstead theatre last night, owing to that fact that his passport is still yet to be returned to him, he will be able to watch #aiww: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei along with the rest of the world when it is streamed live on Friday via the Hampstead theatre website.